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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

2008-12-21 Luke 1:26-38 "Love"

2008-12-21 Luke 1:26-38 "Love"
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Today, we light the fourth candle of Advent. In the weeks leading up to today, we've lit a candle for hope, for peace, for joy, and this week, love. Before we leap forward into the obvious love of Christ, we should step back, and see how love has brought us here in the first place. Think about that: love has brought us here in the first place.

We began our scriptures today with a psalm about the steadfast love of God, Psalm 89.

89:1 I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my
mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.

89:2 I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as
firm as the heavens.

89:3 You said, "I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my
servant David:

89:4 'I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all

Now flash forward to the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary.

"Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

It's usually a bigger deal to us that God sent the angel Gabriel to a virgin, than the fact that God sent the angel Gabriel to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph who was of the house and lineage of David with whom God had sworn an everlasting covenant. Good gossip trumps good ancestry every time. It's only human nature to marvel at a relationship's short-term mechanics rather than study the long-range planning that forged the relationship in the first place. What we read in the gospel isn't an angelic whim. Mary wasn't chosen because God pulled her name out of a hat. Nor was Joseph simply the lottery-winning legacy of the house of David. God's steadfast love is woven into the fabric of the history of God's people, of which Mary and Joseph are but one, albeit very prominent string. God's steadfast love begins long before Mary, long before Joseph. God's steadfast love is established, and God's steadfast love endures, forever. When we read the story of Mary in the context of the Psalm, we see a bigger picture.

What about our love, and our loves? How big is our picture? Sometimes our love and our loves endure forever. Sometimes they flame out after a few years. Sometimes our loves break our hearts. When we feel love toward someone, or when we receive the love of another, it feels as though we're tapping into the power of the universe. Love is mystifying, love is wonderful, love is scary - all at the same time. Love compels us to ask Mary's question, "How can this be?" We don't know. Is love random, or is love predestined? We don't know. Whatever love is, we know it's bigger than we are. Love expands our personal world, and at the same time makes the world a smaller place. We care about people apart from us. We make them part of our our story. In turn, we become part of their story.

Imagine God's love as seen through a movie camera. For a moment, God's love zooms in on Mary and on Joseph. But just as they come into focus, God zooms back out. As soon as Mary and Joseph start to wonder how these personal things can be, God shows them something beyond their dreams. Mary and Joseph have love for God. But these two are also only two souls in a sea of countless more. God's love narrows down on two young people on their way to Bethlehem. But through these two, God's love expands, stretching its view across time and around worlds.

As we look at the candle of love, we focus on its flame. Isn't that where your eyes are drawn? We don't think about the wick. We don't see how its strands were woven together. We don't see the machines or the people who dip the candle in a wax mold. We don't worry about the trucks or trains or boats that brought it from its place of origin to our sanctuary. We see the flame. But even if that's all we see, we should also think about the heavenly meaning of the flame. We see the flicker of one candle, but we can also imagine how it's part of an eternal flame, representing a house and lineage great enough to hold us all. That candle over there shines with God's love for you. But it also shines with God's love for all the people around you. And it shines for all the people over there, way off on the other side of the sanctuary. And it shines for all the people not here. And it shines for all the people way on the other side of the tracks, wherever that is. God's love shines so great we have to say, as Mary did, "How can this be?"

Think about the means God uses to show love to this world. It doesn't make any sense. Think for a moment: if you were God and you wanted to show your love to the whole world, would you choose a young girl and her husband-to-be, a couple of donkey-riders, she very pregnant, and he a bewildered almost-father who talks to angels in his dreams? These are not people of stature. They don't own a religious broadcasting TV network. They don't pray with presidents. How can this be? Perhaps Joseph was of the house and lineage of David, but so were a lot of other people. It's as if God is intentionally looking for ones least expected to bring the loving Savior into the world.

Think back to David. King David. The greatest king of Israel, anointed by God and chosen as the one to lead God's people into the future. How did God choose him? The story is way back in the Old Testament. God needed a new king, because the old king, Saul, was crazy. So God told the priest, Samuel, to go out one day and anoint a new king. Samuel called Mr. Jesse, because Jesse had a bunch of strong, good-looking sons. Back then, if you had a house full of strong, good-looking sons, you were top dog. So the priest Samuel told Jesse to parade his strong, good-looking sons before him, one at a time, so Samuel could discern God's voice saying, "That one." One by one, the boys stood before the priest. How about this one? Nope. Okay, how about this one? Ummm, nope. Son after son passed before the priest, until they all had been turned down. Priest Samuel said to Jesse, "Don't you have ANY other sons?" And Jesse said, "Well, I do have one more, his name is David. He's out in the field, tending the sheep while we're here at the king auditions. But you wouldn't want him. Scrawny, sunburned little guy. Are you sure you don't want to check one of these other boys one more time?" Priest Samuel said no. Go get the boy. So they did. David stood before Samuel and God whispered in Samuel's ear: "That one." The least expected turned out to be the chosen one.

Whatever else you might say about God, God is consistent. Just as King David, the least expected, was called up to service, so also were Mary and Joseph. So being of the house and lineage of David doesn't simply mean you have the right DNA. It also means you're one of the unexpected. God chooses the unexpected, over and over again. From this long line of Unexpecteds, God picks Joseph and Mary to be the agents of his love to the whole world.

Who would you least expect to show you love this Christmas? Who are your Unexpecteds?

You might have a few enemies. You probably don't expect a pile of presents from them. Jesus said to love our enemies and to pray for them. That doesn't make any sense, either. A lot of times we twist that command into veiled manipulation. We've tried arguing. That hasn't worked. So as a measure of last resort, we try it Jesus' way. Maybe if we're nice enough to our enemies, they'll be grateful for our kindness and begin to see things our way. It has been known to work. But we know Christmas isn't about winning friends and influencing people. Christmas is about love, unexpected love, brought in unexpected ways, by unexpected people. God loves your enemies. Jesus loves your enemies. What can you learn from seeing God's love for and through Unexpecteds? Maybe it isn't wise or healthy or even safe for you to try to share love with all your enemies. Some enemies are dangerous. But if you believe that God loves your enemies even if you can't, and if you also believe that God loves you, too, you're starting to zoom out to the bigger picture of God's love. God's love is about more than you. God's love is about more than your enemies. That concept in itself is unexpected. God's love is so much bigger than our expectations.

How big are your expectations?

In today's economy, in these days of lower values and lower earnings, one of the first personal things to be lowered are our expectations. Those of you who remember living with substantially less, those of you who remember the Great Depression and its effects might say a general lowering of expectations would be a good thing. We can live with less, and maybe there are some who especially should. Maybe the best gift we can give ourselves this year would be both halves of our credit cards, one half in each hand. Economically and materially, lowering our expectations, reducing our appetites could be our healthiest move.

But what about your expectations of God? We know that in times of lowered physical expectations, our spiritual hopes go up. That's common sense. When the good is taken away, when life gives us less, we pray more. At least prayer is still free. But just because the number of our prayers goes up doesn't mean our expectations increase as well. We just bug God more. Kind of how we bug the home repairman who never returns our calls. Eventually, we start calling him every day. Maybe if we irritate him enough, he'll relent, and finish the construction project. If we really believed Mr. Fix-it was conscientious, we wouldn't have to bug him so much. At first the calls to his voice mail are nice. "Hey. Just wanted to make sure you remembered there's a person-shaped hole in our back porch." But over time our messages get shorter and testier. Eventually, we give up and start asking friends who they'd recommend. What do you do, when times are tough, and God seems to be letting your prayers go to the machine? If God doesn't answer in a professional and timely manner, will your expectations of God begin to fall? Will you start to think, maybe God isn't so powerful after all? Maybe God doesn't really love me.

Our expectations of God are very small, and very focused. Usually they're focused on ourselves. As if God has no one else in the universe to worry about. And in a way, that's true. God the omnipotent hears your prayers and knows your every need. The problem is if that's true for you, it's also true for the person on the other side of the sanctuary, and on the other side of the world. God hears everyone's prayers and knows everyone's needs. It's not just about you. The situation is complicated. God loves you. And God loves countless other people. We know that, but we don't always expect that. We expect too little of God.

Some of us complain because Christmas season seems to begin earlier every year. It used to be the stores would wait until after Thanksgiving to put up decorations and start having sales. Now, it's the day after Halloween. In Pigeon Forge, there are Christmas stores open year-round. We complain because Christmas comes too early. We barely even have a clue.

Christmas in the Bible started way before Mary and Joseph. You can trace God's Christmas plans back through Joseph's house and lineage back to King David. David was part of Christmas. He didn't know it. And back beyond David, you've got his father, Jesse, and the priest Samuel. And back beyond him, you've got the priest Eli, and Samuel's mother, Hannah. And back beyond them, you've got the original Joseph, another dreamer, with his coat of many colors. And back beyond him, you've got Jacob and Esau, and Abraham and Sarah. In the Gospel According to John, which we'll read on Christmas Eve, it says Jesus was the Word, and the Word was with God in the Beginning, the Beginning of everything. And nothing in the universe was made without the Word, who is Christ the Lord. Christmas is old. Christmas started way before you. Christmas is part of the biggest picture you could ever imagine. The love of God is the bigger than your wildest expectations.

How can all this be? The angel Gabriel's answer to Mary was, "Nothing is impossible with God." Which is another way of saying, "Mary. Raise your expectations."

That candle of love burns over there. God's love burns just as bright for you and for me as it did for Mary and Joseph. Don't believe me? Raise your expectations.